At my last job I occasionally worked a shift finishing at 11pm. My car was parked around the corner from the exit, about 150m away.
Before I stepped out into the downtown Auckland street I would fish my keys out of my bag and grasp them firmly in my right hand. Only then would I start walking, moving as quickly as I could without breaking into a jog — all the while trying to appear calm and confident.
I was hyper aware of everything around me. My heart pounded in my chest every time I heard footsteps behind me or saw a figure walking towards me.
As soon as I reached my car I would pull the door shut and lock myself inside; there were four traffic lights where I would potentially have to stop before getting out of the CBD.
In short, I followed a number of the rules for being a woman out alone at night, including:
- Carry your keys in your hand, so as to A) not waste any time looking for them when you get to your car and B) be able to use them as a weapon should the need arise.
- Walk confidently with your head held high — one musn’t “walk like a victim.”
- Pay attention to your surroundings and actively listen and look for potential threats.
- Lock your car doors, lest someone convey your unlocked door as an invitation.
Nothing awful ever happened to me. Of course, it’s more than likely that nothing would have happened to me even if I had broken all the rules, but why risk it?
Living in Fear
Last week a woman was assaulted and nearly abducted on a street in Vancouver. Her attacker grabbed her from behind and tried to drag her into a van.
A link to the story was shared on Facebook, and this comment, which had lots of likes, really struck me:
“Women should always carry pepper spray or something to defend themselves in their hands such as a heavy perfume bottle, sprays, whistles, etc… Never wear earphones or listen to music when on the street! You never know if a car or a person is approaching you from behind. Always have your phone in your hand ready to call 911! When walking on your own always look around and be aware of crazy people like this.”
It’s so over the top, it’s almost a funny picture. Imagine it: a woman walking down the street with a weighty perfume bottle and a mobile phone in one hand, pepper spray in the other, whistle gripped between her teeth and her eyes wide, darting all around. Every couple of minutes she spins around to check who’s behind her. It’s almost funny, except that it’s not funny at all.
Because there’s nothing comical about living in fear, which is exactly what this is.
If a woman does dare to ignore the being-a-woman safety rules and something does happen, she will shoulder some of the blame. If her skirt was short and she was listening to music instead of for the approaching footsteps of a potential assailant, well, then there’s more she could have done to prevent the attack. And what was she doing out alone at night, anyway?
Addressing the Real Problem
I, and every woman, should be able to walk down the street at any time of day, in any place, in any outfit — or none at all — and not fear being harassed or assaulted or raped.
The safety rules that we follow and encourage our friends, sisters, daughters and mothers to follow… they’re practical. They have probably even saved lives.
But they do nothing to fix the real problem. The problem is that men harass, assault and rape women. No, not all men. But too many men.
I think blogger Andi Cumbo-Floyd hit the nail on the head when she said:
“The way to help women feel safe is not to continue to dwell on the ways women can protect themselves. We’ve got that covered. What we need is for men to learn how to treat a woman as an equal.”
Let’s spend less time thinking of creative ways that women can use items in their handbags as weapons, and spend more time figuring out why some men attack women, and how we can stop it from happening in the first place.
Whether it’s better education, better mental health care, harsher punishments, a combination of these or something else altogether, let’s focus on prevention. And not just prevention of random attacks on dark streets, but also the more common intimate partner violence, date rape and other forms of domestic abuse.
I’m not saying women should stop following ‘the rules’ — do whatever you have to do in order to feel safe. But let’s also try to move towards a time when ‘the rules’ aren’t necessary anymore.
I know there is no one simple solution to changing these things, and I certainly don’t have all, or even any, of the answers.
But I also know that trying to change misogynistic attitudes is a better use of time than figuring out how to fashion a tube of lip balm into a makeshift knife.